Fellow blogger Greg Bloom at Bread for the City has asked whether the WIC program could be leveraged with programs like DC Hunger Solution’s Healthy Corner Store initiative to boost demand for more healthful foods.
An intriguing question. So let me try to answer.
Of course, the first step would be to ensure that corner stores in low-income neighborhoods are authorized to accept WIC coupons. Those DC Hunger Solutions interviewed are not. If they were, then the nutrition information and education WIC recipients are supposed to receive could be expanded to specifically address opportunities for healthful choices at corner stores.
Focusing on the WIC authorization issue would make a lot of sense. As I recently wrote, the federal WIC food package has been significantly expanded. The District is in the process of expanding its approved foods list accordingly.
So by the time corner stores got authorized, they would be able to accept WIC coupons for a wide variety of foods. And, of course, WIC recipients would have more convenient places to use their coupons. However, current vendor requirements pose significant barriers for a typical corner store. This is something the D.C. Health Department should look into.
Greg also asks about initiatives to support purchases at farmers’ markets, citing the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s double value coupon initiative.
At least one local government has adopted an approach similar to the programs Wholesome Wave is funding. New York City issues “health bucks” coupons, worth $2 each, to residents in low-income communities with high obesity rates. These are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets.
Food stamp recipients get an additional “health bucks” coupon for every $5 in food stamps they spend at a farmers’ market. I don’t see why a similar initiative couldn’t include purchases with WIC coupons as well as food stamps. Something D.C. could consider.
That said, I doubt whether such an initiative could have a major impact on the diets of many low-income D.C. residents. As with full-service grocery stores, the problem is location. There are only two farmers’ markets east of the Anacostia River, where the greatest concentrations of low-income people live. But here too building demand might increase supply.
The District has taken a first step by becoming part of the federal WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Under this program, D.C. WIC participants can get five $5 checks for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at authorized farmers’ markets. Hardly enough for a year-round healthful diet. But, hey, every bit helps.